Monday, June 29, 2020

Golf Peaks - Thoughts

I find golf about as entertaining as watching someone fill out their student loans, but there's no way I could say "no" to a golf-puzzler. Strip away the sporty premise and Golf Peaks boils down to pushing a ball around a mountain using limited movement options. These options are presented as one-time-use cards, and either move you a certain number of spaces (1, 2, 3 etc.), ignore height while moving a certain number of spaces, or a mixture of both. Gold Peaks' simplicity and soft art style were the biggest selling points for me, and I'm pleased to say that while the game is a definite brain burner, it doesn't fry your neurons like other titles (*coughincreparecough*) do.

There are 10 worlds in Golf Peaks containing 12 courses each, and all but two worlds introduce a new mechanic. This turns a sizable amount of the puzzles into bite-sized tutorials, but fret not!—there are plenty of opportunities to test your skills. Every world has three optional/expert courses, and the two worlds lacking new mechanics will instead feature the toughest, longest puzzles in the game. You can blow through a third of Golf Peaks in thirty minutes, but your pace will slow down tremendously as courses expand and more movement cards are added to your hand.

Difficulty-wise, Golf Peaks rides a fine line between being too easy and over-complicated. The aforementioned tutorial puzzles usually have an obvious route you can discern at a glance, while later puzzles require grid counting and reverse engineering. A lot of courses will appear to hold dozens of viable routes, but with a keen eye you can spot valuable locations where specific cards can come into play. For instance, in the screenshot below, the 3-tile jump card can only be used at the leftmost and rightmost areas of the playing field—and with that puzzle piece in place, you can deduce the purpose of the other cards in relation to it.

But there are two wrenches in the deterministic gears of Golf Peaks. The first is something that's just downright evil: on some puzzles you don't need to use every card. That means that some movement options are there solely to throw you off the trail, and it's never obvious which one it is. The second wrench is a bit more unfortunate: each world's gimmick has a bit of fuzziness around it. For the most part I like the mechanics and how varied they are, but there's a lot of little quirks that bend the rules. Hills end movement after being landed on, jump pads can be reactivated if you ricochet off a wall, and goal holes stop momentum while warp holes do not. So while you can look at your cards and deduce you have X-total planar movement and Y-total vertical movement, the various mechanics twist these results, increasing and decreasing their values depending on how you approach them.

Note that I don't think manipulating static movement values via the environment is poor design—it's just that it hides otherwise open information. The red herring cards combined with variable number values give Golf Peaks an imprecise feel, despite the game being technically precise. At times this can create exemplar moments of cunning (like putting the ball into water so it respawns where you want it), but it can also be the source of your stumping when you forget how a particular mechanic operates. Again, this isn't bad—just be prepared to do a lot of number tweaking in your head while plotting your path.

Golf Peaks is a delicious puzzle game that takes the perfect amount of time to get through. It demands more persistence than $1 appetizers like Hook or klocki, but the amount of fresh ideas and devious mechanics showcased here will more than keep you occupied. The biggest negative I can think of is that the music is lacking (being neither that memorable nor soothing), but the puzzles and visuals are the meat and potatoes of the game—and Golf Peaks absolutely delivers on both fronts. So don't let the silly sport theme fool you. Golf Peaks is about staring at a mountain, calculating how to conquer it, and basking in pride as you finally land that sweet hole-in-one... er, hole-in-seven-cards.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Divinity: Original Sin 2 - Thoughts

Divinity: Original Sin 2—the game so nice I beat it twice!

Okay, I know that's a cheesy line, but when you consider that the game is an 80+ hour RPG, I'd say it's a pretty solid recommendation. Although I loved my time with Persona 5, not once did I entertain the idea of second playthrough—whereas I walked away from Original Sin 2 hungry for more, despite having played two campaigns simultaneously. Original Sin 2 is not only superior to the first game in every single way, but is also—unquestionably—one of the best turn-based RPGs ever made. It's smart, engrossing, deeply tactical, and well worth every single minute you invest into it.

The only major issue with Divinity: Original Sin 2 is that it's buggy. That's it. And unless this is your first rodeo with a western RPG, you're probably aware that buginess comes with the territory. That's not to excuse the glitches you'll inevitably run into, but rest assured that the occasional graphical hiccup or game crash doesn't ruin the experience—provided you save frequently. Every other problem Original Sin 2 has, from its unhelpful quest log to its wildly imbalanced encounters, are drops of bad in an ocean of greatness. Original Sin 2 garners so much good will that even when the game encroaches upon frustrating territory, you'll bear it all with a smile.

The key to Divinity: Original Sin 2's resounding success is threefold: it looks great, plays great, and gets you invested in its story. Any one of those usually provides reason enough to play through a game (the combat was all the first game had going for it), but having all three are the markers for a masterpiece. Before I dive into each of these facets, I have to commend Larian Studios for not only learning from the first game's failures, but also expanding the co-op from two players to four. Original Sin 2 was a ton of fun to play with my friend group, even when we were mucking up battles and accidentally (and sometimes not-so-accidentally) blowing each other up.

The jump in presentation from the first Original Sin to the second is subtle, but noticeable. The UI has been cleaned up, the visuals are clean and gorgeous, and the voice acting has been reigned in. I played a little Neverwinter Nights parallel to this and the difference between the two is night and day. That's not a fair comparison, but it helps to drive home how truly important a sharp art style, poignant soundtrack, and easily readable interface are to keeping the player invested. Original Sin 2's presentation wasn't the reason I was playing the game, but it certainly helped make a fairly complicated game more palatable—the voice acting in particular is downright savory.

What did keep me coming back to Original Sin 2 was the explosive combat. The Original Sin series possesses, bar none, the most engaging RPG combat I've ever experienced. It's smart, colorful, and extremely flexible, giving players innumerable ways to engage with it. A lot of skills have been reworked and a bunch more have been added, introducing spells formed from two different disciplines (like fire and archery), as well as abilities powered by Source, Original Sin 2's rare but powerful magic resource. This rapidly expands the ways you can interact on the battlefield, and since magic & physical armor now block debuffs, you can no longer stunlock foes from turn 1 like in the first game.

Even when fights are gruelingly long and cruel (I'm looking at you, Aetera) you usually won't mind losing because it's so much fun trying to puzzle out a viable solution. Notice that I didn't say "the correct solution"; every build and ability in the game has its pros and cons, and if you're approach battles wisely you can tackle fights well above your level. It helps that Original Sin 2 isn't about hard numbers as much as it's about spacial awareness and clever combos. For instance, if you need to stall a warrior while you whittle down another opponent, there's a ton of ways to do that: block yourself off with a wall of vines, freeze the ground beneath him, shoot an arrow into his feet, teleport him across the map, etc. Feeling like you're outnumbered but coming up with a risky play ("I'll Shackles of Pain myself so that when you blow me up they'll die too!") really captures the rambunctious magic of Original Sin 2. It's an experience no other game has: chess-like strategy blended together with improv comedy execution.

And if that wasn't enough to sell you, the story in Original Sin 2 is absolutely excellent. I would've been pleased if it was good—that would've heightened it above the farcical plot of the first game—but Original Sin 2 goes above and beyond, keeping a smidgen of the old humor but dowsing it in consequence. The story and choices you make are fraught with morally gray quandaries, few characters lacking a reason for the violence they cause. The first Original Sin was about stopping an apocalyptic force from returning, while in this game you are the cause of the apocalyptic force this time, and "solving" this problem is no easy task. The struggle between good and evil is stranger, murkier—all the major factions vying for power are simply trying to restore justice to a dying world.  I fully expected to ignore the plot at the start, but I was pleasantly surprised at how often Original Sin 2's dilemmas divided my friend group. By the end of the game, two of them had vowed to kill my character if given the opportunity—which is the sign of a great role playing story.

There is no RPG system with more fun, funny, and tactical combat than Divinity: Original Sin 2. Improving on the first game alone would make it a landmark experience, but Larian studios went above and beyond, creating a title that I would argue is a must-play. If Original Sin 2 is to have a greatest accomplishment, it isn't the strong visuals, phenomenal gameplay, or enticing story: it's that it makes the player engage with a role playing game, where every story choice, every stat increase, and every combat deliberation is theirs and theirs alone to make. There are a lot of ways to play Original Sin 2, a lot of characters to haggle with, and a lot of fights to survive, but these myriad of branches stem from the same trunk of truth—Divinity Original Sin 2 is unbelievably good.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Doom Eternal - Thoughts

2016's Doom didn't need a sequel. I will never whine about receiving more Doom, but that game was damn near flawless. The art design was amazing, the campaign had the perfect length, and the lightning-quick combat was a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre. In my entry on the game I complained about its linearity and some other issues, but time away from Doom has reduced those gripes to background noise. Doom was a juggernaut that blew nearly everyone away, and repeated playthroughs has cemented it as one of my favorite shooters of all time.

So when Doom Eternal was announced, I was more intrigued than I was ecstatic. The gameplay was perfect, so what else could id Software add? Perhaps if they made the stages more non-linear, removed the self-serious cutscenes, and expanded the multiplayer, then I could see how Doom Eternal could rise above the Olympic heights set by its predecessor. The game wouldn't be nearly as revolutionary—there was no way of that happening—but I would definitely be down to play a more polished Doom clone.

Yet in the end, id Software did none of those things—in fact they did the exact opposite. Doom Eternal is more restrictive, more self-serious, and does away with the traditional deathmatch experience. What skeletal remains there were of the original '90s series have been further discarded, forging Doom Eternal into its own strange, nasty little thing. So I can't in all honesty claim that Doom Eternal is a better game than 2016's Doom... but I think I like it more.

What I love about Doom Eternal is simple: the gameplay is nuts. Not only is Eternal faster on every front, but it's far deadlier as well, mercilessly punishing the player for missteps and careless gambles. Doom's difficulty tended to peter off in its latter half, but Eternal pressures the player for the entire game, keeping a blazing inferno lit under their ass. And it's not just that the enemies hit harder and are more aggressive; you'll be required to use your entire arsenal if you want to avoid joining the ranks of the dead. The ammo cap has been massively reduced, meaning you'll have to constantly rely on chainsawing through fodder demons to restock your weapons. Grenades serve a much larger role this time around (I forgot they were even in Doom!), providing a burst of damage & stun when the player needs it most. There's also a flamethrower and power-punch to refill armor and health respectively; if you haven't been keeping track, this is a lot of additional keys to hit.

The new abilities radically change Doom's combat from a free-form death ballet to a chaotic weapon juggling brawl. It's still possible to get to the point where you're untouchable, but reaching that zen state requires a lot more work than it did in 2016's Doom. Here you'll need to learn how to switch away from your weapon while it's on cooldown, seek out weaker foes when you're in need of munitions, and utilize enemy weaknesses to rob them of their strongest attacks. Doom Eternal's fights are rigid—so rigid that the most memorable thing to come out of the game is an infamous nemesis that can only be harmed when his eyes glow green. I was terrified of the aforementioned Marauder during my first playthrough, but he really does help to teach how Doom Eternal prioritizes what you need over what you want. At the beginning you'll probably find yourself wishing that you could hold more ammo or that the arachnatron wasn't such a bullet sponge, but you'll come to realize Doom Eternal shines brightest when you have to use every tool in your arsenal to survive.

A lot of folks are quick to mention the ammo drought, enemy weaknesses, or implacable Marauder as the biggest shake-up to Doom's formula, but that honor belongs to the best upgrade in the game: the dash. No longer must the Slayer dance around an enemy in the hopes their fireball will miss—dashing affords Doomguy a new dimension of control, letting him skirt dangerous attacks and rapidly close in for a glory kill. Seriously, the dash is a remarkable improvement that transforms the player from a scrambling ranger into a blazing-fast buzz saw of bullets. There is no doubt in my mind that without the dash, Doom Eternal would be the inferior experience compared to its older sibling. With it however, Eternal has evolved the series into a veritable FPS/character action game hybrid—and it rules.

I immensely enjoyed my time with Doom Eternal, but that's by and large because I learned to play by its rules. I found the demands inherit in its gameplay to be intriguing and rewarding rather than complicated and limiting. Plus I adored how ferocious the combat had become—especially on Nightmare, where being struck by two enemies at once is basically lethal. But by narrowing down its audience, I don't think I can comfortably call Doom Eternal a better game than its predecessor. In many ways Doom was the ultimate FPS power fantasy: despite the chunky gore and grim atmosphere, it was a welcoming experience that let you kick off your shoes and slay some hellspawn. Doom Eternal on the other hand is relentlessly austere, both in its gameplay and its lore.

And I totally understand—id Software was at impasse. Although they could've continued with a light-hearted "Hell on Earth" storyline, I think the plot would've suffered from a "been there, done that" feeling. Instead they dove even deeper into the lore, weaving a sci-fi tale about two clans of aliens and their history with Hell. Surprisingly, I didn't mind the focus on the Sentinels and Hell Priests, partly because I like how stupidly in-depth it was, and also because 2016's Doom had primed me on what to expect. I think the story of the previous game is more captivating—especially because you don't need to look into the lore to comprehend it—but Doom Eternal manages to stand on its own... for the most part (prepare for a lot more cutscenes you have no control over).

Almost everything else about Doom Eternal is on par with 2016's Doom. The progression system offers a lot of variability, the changes made to the weapons are excellent (the super shotgun meathook is a godsend), and the visuals are constantly captivating—an endgame area sticks out in particular, being one of the coolest and most unique alien worlds I've had the pleasure of rampaging through. There's no singular track that reaches the heights of BFG Division, but there are plenty heart-poundingfoot-tapping tunes that are guaranteed to get the blood surging through your veins. And lastly, I uh... have no idea how well the multiplayer holds up. The single player campaign was all I needed, and it fulfilled its purpose very well.

Doom Eternal isn't just more Doom—it's Doom-on-steroids. Some really big, demonic gut-ripping steroids. The game provides you with a lot of flashy tools and then warns that they are there for your survival, not entertainment. You can still flaunt your battle prowess, playing with imps and cacodemons as if they were newborn kittens, but the journey to get to that stage will be a lot more taxing. And honestly, some may not be ready for that. 2016's Doom remains the better game on the principle that it's the easier title to get into, but Doom Eternal managed to do the impossible: it improved on an already immaculate combat system. Eternal is a fearsome, chaotic, energizing beast—and I loved loved loved all three of my playthroughs of it.